If you’re considering a vegan diet for you and your family and you’re wondering how to make it work, you may find this parent-to-parent advice helpful for understanding how I managed a healthy vegan pregnancy and how I’ve raised my son vegan since birth.
Questions you might have at the beginning of your family’s plant-based journey may include:
- Is a vegan diet suitable during pregnancy?
- Can you breastfeed on a vegan diet?
- Is breastmilk vegan?
- Is a vegan diet suitable for children?
It’s reassuring to know that NHS guidelines support the fact that a well-planned, well-balanced vegan diet is suitable for people of all ages, including pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children. It can be harder to ensure all nutrients are met, and it does take some research and advanced planning, but it absolutely can be done, and vegans of all ages are able to thrive just as much as their non-vegan peers, if their food is varied and abundant enough.
If you or your children have allergies (especially nut or soy) or have other any other health conditions, it’s worth speaking to your GP or a dietician about whether a vegan diet is suitable.
My Vegan Pregnancy
My husband and I had been vegan for a number of years before I got pregnant and we are both generally healthy people. I had no health concerns, and my pregnancy was straightforward. It made perfect sense to us that our child should be raised following the same diet, and unless advised otherwise, this was something we really wanted to share with him.
I wanted to be sure that I was doing everything right, so I mentioned my diet to all the healthcare professionals I came across and asked them for advice. The fact that my weight, blood pressure and iron levels were all normal and the baby was meeting his growth milestones in each trimester, was really reassuring and meant that everyone was supportive of our choices.
I spoke with a dietician who agreed that my diet was healthy and balanced, and approved of the vitamins I was taking. It is recommended that pregnant women following a vegan diet pay particular attention to their vitamin D, iodine, omega 3 and B12 intake, so I took a pregnancy multivitamin containing B12, iodine and vitamin D, and vegan source of omega 3 throughout.
Three days before I gave birth, I went on a 9km walk across Hackney Marshes! Of course, my diet didn’t enable this exclusively, but I do like to dispel the myth that you can’t be strong on a plant based diet!
Breastfeeding on a Vegan Diet
Our son, Rudy, was born a healthy 3 kilograms and was completely perfect in every way. He had a thick head of hair and a sturdy pair of lungs. We were able to get breastfeeding established quickly, and we continued our breastfeeding journey for 16 months. The only supplement he had was a vitamin D drop, which is recommended for all babies in the UK, although we hunted out a vegan-friendly brand.
By three months, he had doubled his birth weight and had jumped from the 25th to the 50th percentile!
Despite what some people assume, breastmilk is completely vegan. As long as the mother consents to giving her milk to a child, breastmilk for a baby aligns with the ethics of veganism. After all, nourishing a child is what the milk is designed for!
The Vegan Society recommends breastfeeding for at least the first six months of a child’s life, and ideally for two years. Breastfeeding requires extra protein and zinc, so it’s important to make sure you are eating enough food to meet this additional nutritional need, and the calcium requirement is around 80% more than for a non-breastfeeding adult. It’s also important to ensure you’re getting enough omega-3, B12 and vitamin D.
Unfortunately, if you can’t, or don’t want to breastfeed, there are limited vegan alternatives available for babies under 6 months in the UK. Donor breastmilk or dairy based formula are likely your only options. Soy based formula is available, but it is best to speak to your GP or health visitor about whether this is suitable for your child, as it’s not usually recommended for babies under 6 months (these formulas also contain vitamin D from lanolin, so although dairy free, they’re not strictly vegan). Plant based milks like soy, oat and almond are not suitable as a main drink for babies under 12 months, although they can be used in cooking.
Weaning a baby onto plant-based solids
Our weaning journey started very much like everyone else’s. Rudy tried softened fruits and vegetables at six months old, and quickly progressed to things like toast, yoghurt and porridge made with breastmilk.
Soon he was eating pretty much what we ate – soup, chickpea curry, coconut daal, pea risotto, tofu pasta, bean chilli, lentil bolognaise – usually the messier the better in his opinion!
In comparison to other friends with children of the same age, Rudy’s meals have always needed additional thought and preparation. But it’s been an enjoyable experience, and I have learnt a lot about food and nutrition in the process – although I am by no means an expert.
What should vegan children eat?
When looking at ‘meat’ and ‘dairy’ as food groups, it might feel surprising that anyone could live healthily without these two major groups. But when you consider what these food groups provide nutritionally – protein, calcium, iron – you soon learn that there are plenty of other ways to get these benefits from vegan food.
Here are just some of the ways I help Rudy to get all the nutrition he needs day to day:
(This is not an exhaustive list. Check online for ways to vary your and your child’s vegan diet and check the NHS nutritional guidelines to make sure you are getting everything you need.)
- A 250ml cup of fortified plant based milk as a calcium-rich drink (since Rudy stopped breastfeeding, he has been drinking whole oat milk). The milk we buy has the same amount of calcium as cow’s milk and is fortified with B12 and iodine, amongst other vitamins too.
- Calcium-set tofu served as nuggets or chopped into stir fries and curries. Some popular brands do not have calcium added, so look out for this on the ingredients list. Tofu is also a great source of protein.
- A serving of plain fortified soya yoghurt with fruit.
- Leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach and broccoli, which are packed with vitamins and are a source of calcium. Rudy isn’t a huge fan of his greens, so I blend them up into a smoothie or mix them into pasta sauce. I also blend with nuts or seeds for a protein-packed pesto.
- Chia seeds added to porridge, yoghurt and smoothies every day for iron and calcium.
- Dried fruits like figs, apricots, prunes and dates as a snack or added into bliss balls. Dried fruit is a source of iron and calcium.
- Sandwiches or toast with almond or peanut butter for an energy-boosting snack. Many brands of bread are made with added calcium, and nut butters are a good source of protein and healthy fats.
- Sesame seeds and tahini – I sprinkle sesame seeds on stir fries, curries and roasted veg, and let him load up on hummus! Both are really high in good fat, protein and calcium.
- Lentils, chickpeas and beans are an obvious iron and protein-rich staple – I add to pasta dishes, curries, soups and stews.
- Quinoa is high in iron and protein and a good alternative to rice. I also add to chillies, stews and curries.
- Breakfast cereal fortified with iron (many are high in sugar, so I tend to avoid most of these, but Rudy does love Weetabix!)
- Seeds such as linseed (flax), hemp and pumpkin – sprinkled over porridge for an extra iron boost at breakfast (always serve ground for babies and toddlers).
- Peanut butter – probably Rudy’s favourite food! Great on toast and sandwiches, as a dip for chopped apples or blended into smoothies for good fats and protein.
- Protein packed nuts like pistachios and walnuts are great to serve with dried fruits as a snack, and are a source of Omega 3.
- Nutritional yeast – a vegan staple with a cheesy, nutty flavour and high in protein and B12. I sprinkle over any savoury dish, and add to blended nuts and milk to make a creamy sauce.
- Fruits and vegetables served with every meal. These are not just high in vitamins, but many are packed with iron, calcium and protein too.
- 1 teaspoon of liquid Omega 3 EPA and DHA each day, which also contains Vitamin D3.
- A toddler dosage of a vegan-friendly multivitamin containing vitamins D3, B2, B6, B12, folic acid, selenium and iodine.
Vegan ‘Junk’ Food
Just because it’s vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy! There are loads of vegan treats, quick meals and ‘junk food’ brands on the market, and although they’re not necessarily advised due to the overly-processed nature and high-sugar content, it does mean kids don’t have to miss out at parties and on special occasions if the other kids are eating treats too.
There are plenty of quick and easy meals and snacks out there for when you’re time-poor or want a bit of a treat. Moderation is key, and as long as these things are the exception rather than the rule, I believe there is room for them in a well-balanced diet.
Vegan and Thriving
Rudy is now two and half and has never eaten animal products. He has a varied diet and a big appetite. Because the majority of his diet is naturally high in fibre, his food digests quickly and he has regular bowel movements…sometimes 4-5 times a day! I have been reassured that this is completely normal, but it will make potty training interesting! He eats three meals and two snacks a day.
When we recently had Rudy tested for allergies (we were concerned he had an intolerance to tomatoes), he had a variety of blood tests done and I was delighted to learn that they all came back normal. This included: Bone profile, liver function, Vitamin B12, iron and folate. If anything, they said his vitamin B12 was a little high – so we reduced the dosage of his multivitamin. Of course, this isn’t the case for all vegans – or all children – as everyone is different, but as long as we can maintain this lifestyle healthily, we will continue this journey as a family.
We haven’t yet explained to Rudy why we don’t eat animal products as a family, but we will navigate that conversation at some point. If he chooses an alternative path in the future, that will be up to him – we won’t stop him.
For now, he is just a little boy who loves his food and loves animals too – he is our happy and thriving plant-based baby.
[Disclaimer: The author of this article is not a healthcare professional and has no qualifications in nutrition. Her story is anecdotal, and the information provided is based on her own online research and personal experience. This article is for information and education purposes only. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and considering a vegan diet for you or your child, please consult a healthcare professional.]